Repeal of helmet law is a sign of change both in bike advocacy and local politics

The two-decade bicycle helmet law experiment is drawing to a close as Seattle, the largest remaining city in the United States with such a law, no longer requires them. The King County Board of Health voted Thursday to repeal its all-ages helmet law after months of debate, a decision that also covers Seattle. The law change went into effect immediately.

The Board made it very clear in their deliberations and in a companion resolution that they still strongly recommend the use of bicycle helmets. But they no longer consider police enforcement the best way to promote their use because of the dangers associated with biased policing.

There were times when it seemed so politically impossible to repeal King County’s rare all-ages bicycle helmet law that it didn’t seem worth trying. But times have changed both within local politics and within global bicycling culture, both of which have pretty big implications for the future of safe streets and beyond.

Bicycle helmet laws were a well-intentioned detour

Let’s rewind to 1993. I-90 finally opened in Seattle, and the region’s decades-long binge of new and wider freeways had led to a seemingly never-ending expansion of sprawling suburbs far away from the city center. People biked a lot in Seattle, at least compared to most other cities in the United States, thanks in large part to the wild success of the Burke-Gilman Trail, the poster child of the Rails-to-Trails movement. But beyond trails, there was practically no momentum to significantly redesign city streets to make them safer for cycling. There was also almost no funding for such an effort. Yet people were getting seriously injured or killed while biking, and people wanted to take action to prevent these tragedies. This was how the bicycle helmet law took hold.

In 1986, an estimated 1% of children wore bicycle helmets in King County, according to the Children’s Bicycle Helmet Coalition (“CBHC”) in a March 1993 Seattle Times story (Seattle Public Library account required to access). But bicycle helmets became more widely available and public information efforts from Cascade Bicycle Club, the Washington Bicycle Federation and the CBHC changed that. By 1993, when King County enacted its helmet law, bicycle helmet use was up to 40% for children and over 50% for adults, according to Cascade. The King County law was supposed to precede a statewide law, but the statewide bill failed to pass.

The early 1990s was also when major bicycle racing organizations started to require helmets for athletes, so the next logical question was whether people riding on city streets should be required to wear them, too. Since the head is the most vulnerable part of the body, it seemed like a good way to prevent death and serious brain injury. This is why Cascade and WA Bike Fed were proponents of the law at the time, and why the law was passed by the Board of Health rather than by the Seattle or King County councils at large. It was a public health effort. (The law initially did not affect Seattle, which had its own Public Health Department. The law expanded to include Seattle when the two public health boards merged in 2003.)

But why single out people on bikes? Yes, head injuries were the leading cause of death for people biking, but the same could be said for people fatally injured inside of cars or walking across the street. Yet there was seemingly no effort at all to mandate that people wear helmets while inside motor vehicles or using crosswalks. While people can easily understand the difference between driving a race car and driving to the grocery store, all bicycling was essentially treated as a sporting activity. If it’s a sport, then wearing a bicycle helmet seemed as logical as wearing a football helmet.

Since passing the law, helmet use has grown to as high as 87% according to a 2018 count in Seattle (count locations were mostly in north Seattle, so they may not be representative of the whole County). It is impossible to know how much of the increase was due to the law and how much was due to general public acceptance of helmets, but surely such actions from the King County Board of Public Health and other health boards and governments across the world carried weight and influenced helmet adoption.

The message was perhaps too successful, though, with an oversized amount of bicycle safety work going toward increasing helmet use. It’s a very politically convenient message as well because it puts the onus for safety on individuals riding bikes rather than, say, the transportation department or elected leaders voting on the annual budget. The problem with such a reliance on this one safety measure is that a helmet is not a magic force field, it is a foam hat. If a person is in a serious collision with a motor vehicle, there are so many physical vulnerabilities that a helmet can’t protect. A helmet is a desperate, last-ditch effort to hold onto life in the midst of a deadly collision. That’s a good enough reason for most people in Seattle to go ahead and wear one, but it’s unhelpful to view them as a panacea for bike safety.

Despite the increase in helmet use, Seattle bike safety still falls far behind cities with far more cycling and very little helmet use. The reason for this disparity is obvious: The safest places for cycling have designed their streets to prevent collisions from happening in the first place. I wish bicycle safety were as simple as getting people to wear helmets, but that’s not how it works. Vision Zero is a more serious public health policy because it puts responsibility on governments to proactively change the systems and infrastructure they control to protect the health and safety of all people using it. That’s a lot more work than promoting helmets, but it also promises to be more effective.

This is why bicycle safety organizations have largely shifted to focusing on safe transportation systems as public policy rather than focusing on helmet use. Cascade Bicycle Club locally and the League of American Bicyclists nationally support the use of helmets when bicycling, but oppose helmet laws. Cascade will continue to require helmets for people participating in Cascade events and programs despite the law change, for example. But the organization that was once a proponent of the King County helmet law helped lead the effort to repeal it, a clear sign that there has been a major shift in bicycle advocacy over the past couple decades. There are now no large cities in the United States with an all-ages helmet law on the books (Spokane is now the biggest city in Washington with such a law). This could put pressure on Vancouver and British Columbia to reconsider their helmet law as that city now stands out as a large city with such a law still on the books.

King County leaders reconsider laws that are causing more harm than good

Treating bicycling as a sport rather than an everyday activity created problems that the original promoters of the law almost certainly did not consider. No matter the intention of the law, it put discretion for enforcement in the hands of police officers, and the result was depressingly predictable. About half of helmet tickets went to people experiencing homelessness, according to a report by the Helmet Law Working Group (which included members from Central Seattle Greenways, Cascade, Real Change and a few other organizations). A Black person riding a bike was 3.8 times more likely to get a helmet ticket than a white person. Indigenous people were 2.2 times more likely to get a ticket and Hispanic/Latino people were 1.4 times more likely.

The repeal of this helmet law could be a sign of a larger shift in the prevailing politics of the region, with leaders more interested in the actual effects of laws rather than the intentions. Nobody wants people to get head injuries, but it is also harmful to have laws on the books that police can so easily use as a pretense to make contact with someone. Officers are supposed to have cause to detain someone, and riding a bike without a helmet is such an easy one to cite. One tool elected officials have for reducing biased police stops is to take away tools that officers can easily use as a legal pretense for making such stops, especially when those laws have a questionable effectiveness.

The lowest-hanging fruit for elected officials are police-enforced laws against actions that have no victims other than the offender. Wearing a helmet does not have any impact on the safety of other road users. But police stops can too easily escalate either into police violence or trap people in the court system. A stop that begins as a supposed helmet violation could lead police to find other violations.

It was this point that earned King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay the New York Times Quotation of the Day: “The question before us was whether a helmet law that’s enforced by police on balance produces results that outweigh the harm that that law creates.”

It was not politically easy for the members of the Board of Health to make this decision. They ran the very real risk of being branded as anti-safety or in favor of head injuries. This is why well-intentioned laws like this one can be so difficult to repeal. But the political winds have shifted in recent years as protests against racist policing have put intense focus on the laws police use to make stops. The question is no longer, “Is this law here for a good reason?” The question now is, “Does this law do more harm than good?”

Perhaps the helmet law repeal is just the beginning of a larger trend. Sticking with transportation, elected officials could look at all kinds of traffic stops and ask the same question. Is this law causing more harm than it prevents? Are there better ways to enforce them than police stops? Jaywalking is a big one. There are also various vehicle codes like driving with a cracked windshield or expired tabs. And, of course, there are many such laws beyond transportation that could use similar reconsideration.

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18 Responses to Repeal of helmet law is a sign of change both in bike advocacy and local politics

  1. Tim says:

    Is [having an expired tabs] law causing more harm than it prevents?

    If it would be legal to drive with expired tabs, why have tabs at all?

    • Bruce Nourish says:

      A part of the left seems to be drifting into a kind of schoolboy libertarianism, where the only valid use of coercion is to prevent or punish violence against other people. Whether that philosophy is compatible with a functioning urban society, I guess we are going to find out.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      A couple sentences before that: “Are there better ways to enforce them than police stops?”

      It’s a question worth exploring. Surely we can think of some other way. Perhaps parking enforcement can write citations. Or traffic cameras. Defaulting to an officer with a gun to carry out everything has serious consequences. I’m not saying car tabs should be free.

      • Charlie says:

        “It’s a question worth exploring.” Nothing sums up why Seattle’s such a public safety mess right now. We explored mass transit 20 years longer than we should have, while other cities actually did something, we’re still exploring what to do about homelessness, and now we’re about to do away with a law that has saved lives because too many black people don’t care to wear helmets. And now we will have people who don’t renew their car tabs because a cop won’t stop them for it. Anything else you’d like to explore?

    • Steve Campbell says:

      Everyone must have missed it when SPD announced on January 15th that expired tabs, cracked windshields, air fresheners hanging from rear view mirrors, missing front license plates, and bicycle helmet violations would be deprioritized. Meaning they couldn’t be the primary reason for stopping someone for a citation.

      So not legal but not by itself going to get you stopped for a ticket in Seattle anymore.

  2. Clark in Vancouver says:

    This is good news. Sort of an odd reason though but we’ll take it.

    I think just the fact that the helmet law experiment has failed everywhere is enough reason I would think. The fact that head injury is lower than other activities that don’t require helmets should be enough. Countries with the highest injuries when biking have helmet laws and the lowest don’t have helmet laws. It really shows how ineffective the law has been.

    I once thought of a compromise law, where it would involve the style of bike. Bikes that have potential to flip forward (racing bikes, mountain bikes) would require helmets but ones that can’t flip forward; cruisers, roadsters, etc. wouldn’t require them. I think this is too subtle for many people to understand though and now I think it’s just better if there’s no law at all.

    In Vancouver, BC there’s pressure to remove both the municipal law and the provincial law. The municipal law only applies to certain specified areas leaving many places in Vancouver without a helmet law and we don’t see any problem. It’s enforced a bit but like most cities nowadays there are other more serious issues going on.

    And I’m not even going to bring up the fact that the first “study” by Thompson, Rivara & Thompson was flawed in its methodology.

    • Tim says:

      Any rider can go over the bars on any bike, even if the bike doesn’t have a front brake. Any rider on any bike could get struck from the side too

      • Clark in Vancouver says:

        Prove it!

        I say this because I don’t believe it’s true. Some bikes just don’t flip forward even if you try to make them do it. You can race down a hill and pull the front brake only and it’ll just stop and the back won’t go up. I’ve done it.

        Just face the facts that helmets don’t do much and for most types of cycling aren’t even needed. We’ve all been lied to for 30 years. Enough is enough. We now know that they’re ineffective. We should look elsewhere if we want to reduce harm and not waste time on things like this.

      • Tim says:

        Have a lapse in judgement and hit a curb. Over the bars. Hit a pothole you didn’t see. Over the bars. Take a corner too tight and scrape a pedal. Over the bars. It does not matter what kind of frame or what handlebar style you have, any rider can go over the bars on any bike.

        If you really think helmets are unnecessary then take a look at this gallery and know that every one of those riders would have a chunk of their head missing. Were some engaged at the more extreme end of the cycling spectrum? Certainly. But the Camry that ran over the bike was probably someone just riding through the city, and could just as well have been on one of those “not dangerous” cruiser bikes.

      • asdf2 says:

        You don’t even have to go over the handlebars. A falling tree branch can bang you on the head and make you very glad you have a helmet on.

  3. bryan willman says:

    Very early on I saw pretty compelling data that bicycle helmet *laws* (as distinct from *helmets*) – such *laws* caused more rather than less injury/death/etc. Why? Well one argument was that it discouraged (at the margin) people from riding bikes, which is good for their health. Another one I see is that more people riding means more people driving cars, busses, etc. are cyclists, understand other cyclists.

    As for making things safer on the whole – I’m afraid that building bike lanes where there happened to be an abandoned rail line, or the street happened to be wide enough – was and is an inadequate plan.

    • (Another) Tom says:

      All streets are plenty wide enough for bikes. Not all streets are wide enough for the oversized tanks everyone insists on bringing with them everywhere they go to both drive and park on the street.

    • Ballard Biker says:

      Well one argument was that it discouraged (at the margin) people from riding bikes, which is good for their health.

      There are a dozen reasons that would prevent someone from biking before helmet. I don’t buy this argument one bit. People are cheering the removal of flawed, but fixable, safety laws.

  4. Bryan says:

    How is reappealing this law well intentioned well I guess you believe everyone has the right to shatter their skull all over the pavement then. I work in the hospital and have seen the effects of traumatic brain injuries on patients, and it is heartbreaking! I always wear my helmet when I’m on my bike. No one plans when they want to get in an accident. I wish we lived in a perfect world where we didn’t need such things but sadly, we do. I wish no bicyclist ever gets hurt. I’m not for legal pressure on cyclists, they should honestly drive around and give people helmets. Make the community have friendlier interactions with police. Impressionable people will head this dangerous message and think it’s okay to not wear a helmet and may possibly get in an accident or killed, no one should be happy by that outcome!

    • JR says:

      Of course no-one would be happy with that outcome. But designing streets (and motor vehicles) to prevent collisions or reduce their impact are much more leveraged ways to improve rider safety than wearing helmets alone…see Tom’s remarks about helmets being that “last-chance” protection, but the point is not to need that in the first place.

      So yes, definitely keep wearing helmets, but let’s not pretend that helmets alone are the route to better rider safety and less individual harm, or even that they are the most important protection.

      Helmets have been vastly over-emphasized as the *primary*, and often the *sole* means of rider protection. That has been a harmful error that we have a chance to correct.

  5. ROBERT STRADER says:

    Take a look at the Netherlands, no one wears helmets except lycra wearing racing participants, they have oneof the lowest rates of injury and the highest numbers riding. Like Tom said, “Helmit laws put all the onus of safety on the rider and not the authorities to build better infrastructure”. (Okay that isn’t what he said exactly, but whatever) The Dutch decided to get serious about safer riding and walking conditions and it has worked without helmit laws.

  6. Bryan says:

    The United States is Not the Netherlands! We do not have the same bicycle infrastructure as them and there is road rage and violence committed all over this country. Do you not want to acknowledge that are just want to look away from that fact! A helmet is the only line of defense you have on a bike!

  7. Bryan Willman says:

    The “pass laws to mandate safety” argument has some problems.

    The US tried to ban booze, that failed (in kind of spectacular fashion actually.) Booze has surely killed more people than failure to wear helmets. And the current pattern is for MJ, and I suspect eventually other drugs, to be legalized, probably eventually througout most of the US. I’ve seen no one claim that MJ is actually good for people, or that being intoxicated by it won’t be bad. Yet the observed revealed preference in at least some places is to allow it. Booze is legal most everywhere. Cigarettes are very much legal. Claiming that some law is to “protect cyclists” rings hollow – it sounds and feels much more like “we don’t want you to ride a bike, but have a shot, and a toke, and a smoke….”

    It’s also a little odd to have a law passed by unelected folks (not subject to recall or reelection) – the whole thing smacks of technocratic centralized “force people to do what we want” constructions.

    Which risks backfiring – “oh, I can’t just rent this Lime bike because I don’t have a helmet, I’ll just use my car or an uber or a taxi instead…”

    Finally – a helmet is **NOT** the only line of defense I have on a bike – my eyes, ears, common-sense, judgement, and sometimes fear, are all more important. (Mind you I am a religious wearer of cycling helmets….)

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